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Thoughts on Season 1 of “Game of Thrones”

(I’m saying this up front: SPOILERS AHEAD for Season 1.  You’ve been forewarned).

And with that final shot of the newborn “children”, the curtain drops on HBO’s first season of “Game of Thrones.”  It’s been a fun ride watching them take what was a pretty good book and make it into a pretty good series.  Just about every site, blog and page online has fallen head over heels in love with it and the only question seems to be whether or not you wait the year it’s going to take to make Season 2 or do you plunge into the next book to find out what happens next.  (Spoiler: a metric shit ton of war).

The cast and crew should take a nice long bow and get ready for awards season as I can’t imagine that they won’t be showered with praise in the form of statuettes and trophies.  Peter Dinklage is just about a shoe-in for several awards right of the bat.  Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington were solid revelations upon which much of the rest of this show can be built on.  Every small character actor seemed to enjoy nailing their part.  And thanks to his performance, there’s a lot of positive feedback aimed at Jason Momoa and his upcoming Conan The Barbarian remake. 

It’s been interesting to see the reactions of people as the show unfurled itself.  At first, the Dothraki storyline was sensed as an anchor on the more interesting stuff happening on Westeros while Ned Stark was the noble hero that people thought they could identify with.  Now people are sad to see Drogo and Dany being parted while the “Stupid Ned Stark” meme took the Internet by storm.  About the only thing that’s been consistent is the amount of innate hatred that poor Jack Gleeson has engendered due to his performance as Prince Joffrey. 

But what watching the show does bring out is that Ned Stark wasn’t an honorable man.  Oh he proclaimed and acted as a man of honor, but he was someone who took the easy option whenever given.  It was easy to rebel alongside Robert when the Mad King had just brutally murdered his father and brother and was demanding his head.  (What was his other option? Give it to him?)  It was easy to take Robert’s offers and become Hand of the King – the King was his friend.  All the choices Ned made were of the easy honor variety; the kind that loves to proclaim and exclaim it is virtuous without fear of the consequences.  In many ways, the charge he laid at Jamie Lannister’s feet (“You served when it was convenient to serve”) can just as easily be placed at Ned’s feet. Even the specter of war over the realm can’t get Ned to renounce his position.  Ned doesn’t really become a man of honor until he puts the lives of his daughters ahead of himself and states the lies the Queen and her cohorts ask of him.

All you need to know about Ned’s honor and this season’s thesis on honor is contained within the small exchange in episode 1 between Ned and Bran after Ned executes a deserter of the Night’s Watch.

Bran: “Is it true that he saw the white walkers?”

Ned: “The white walkers have been gone for thousands of years.”

Bran: “So he was lying?”

Ned: “The madman sees what he sees.”

Ned has just heard a young man tell him of the most horrific encounter in his life in a clear-headed way.  He asks not for forgiveness, but for a message to be sent to his parents.  Choosing to believe him would demand that Ned forego his execution.  But the law is the law and Ned Stark’s honor hinges on him observing the law.  So he beheads him.  It becomes easier to decry him as a madman to his son (even though later, his own brother tells him he has his doubts) than to admit that he has made a mistake. 

But in this case, Ned Stark is not alone. Much of this season has been spent showing us how people in power choose to shut their eyes to the obvious events around them (not that such things happen to us in our real world, right?)  King Robert opts to drink himself blind than to accept the danger his wife’s family is becoming.  Viserys refuses to see the growing strength within his sister and pays for it in one of this season’s most memorable moments.  Jon Snow cannot see beyond his own pride when he takes the black.  It takes his friends and Tyrion to point things out to him.  Queen Cersei is unable to acknowledge the little monster she’s training in her firstborn son.

At every turn, the powerful would-be-leaders of Westeros display the kind of short-sightedness that is dangerous.  Ned’s honor, Cersei’s ambition and Robert’s apathy are the kindling upon which Catelyn’s arrest of Tyrion sparks open war.  Now all the nobles fight and burn and kill for the throne while the Night’s Watch heads alone to deal with the greatest threat the realm could face – the White Walkers of legend.

The White Walkers were glimpsed and hinted at; their threat looming in the distance and part of a greater theme of this year: the reawakening of the old magic.  Sadly, no one is ready to believe or willing to accept what they see.  Tyrion chides Jon in episode 2 about not believing in the tales he heard as a child – that there are no monsters beyond the Wall.  By the time the show ends, we’ve seen witches performing blood magic, we’ve seen children having prophetic dreams and we’ve seen Dany’s ability to survive the hottest flames.  And then we get dragons.  Tyrion was wrong and the monsters are real and coming back.  Their presence will only grow.

All of this is in the book which, if I’m honest, is the second weakest of the series.  There was a great deal of world-building and setting up to do in order to get people to understand the dynamics of the characters and their places.  Now that we know them, Season 2 can get started with the proper fireworks show.  It’ll be interesting to see who they cast to fill out the major roles of A Clash of Kings, most notably the much-mentioned Stannis Baratheon.  With Sean Bean off, there is a good chance to land another name actor to play the brooding and harsh Stannis.

The intriguing question is what does HBO do with this show next.  It’s been a clear success and should have no problems moving box sets when those are released nor selling subscriptions ahead of Season 2’s premiere.  But if Season 1 was expensive, it’s nothing compared to what comes next.  You’ve got grown direwolves, dragons, mages and armies of all sizes moving every which way.  And even if you can play around some of these events, there is at least one massive battle in Season 2 that they can’t just “Rome” away by showing the before and after.  I mention Rome because it was that show’s ballooning costs that eventually cut it short.  With such a large cast, crew, SFX budget and sets, this could get out of hand in a hurry if the showrunners aren’t careful.

And with that, I think I’ll end this way-too-long overview.  In just under a month, Martin finally drops the much-awaited fifth book in his series.  And the cycle will begin anew in Spring 2012.  Can’t wait. 

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